Cameron was brutally clear when he foresaw the need to intensify EU union. Such concerns may force a UK exit.
brave europhile Brits walk in fear of Brexit and Tory Eurosceptics and
their UK Independence Party cousins inhale the sweet smell of success,
other Europeans watch with bemusement how Britain, after decades of
obstreperous membership of the European club, may finally pick up its
armoured handbag and go.
The recent history of Europe has
accustomed us to reversals, but few have materialised as fast as this:
the secession of the UK from the European Union, once a topic for
post-prandial jousting, is now a hot potato on Europe’s political menu.
Brexit should be dreaded or welcomed as the exit of a poisonous
flatmate has become a matter of serious examination in European
capitals. Would British withdrawal badly weaken the economic and
ideological foundations of the single market, allowing excessive statism
a free rein? Would a British departure deal a fatal blow to Europe’s
global clout by depriving it of British diplomatic and military heft? No
consensus has formed – though on balance, most EU leaders would prefer
the UK to stay in.
So why the change? As with pretty much
everything else in Europe these days, the answer lies with the euro zone
crisis. Strikingly, the dynamics at work have found their first clear
expression in an interview UK chancellor George Osborne gave the
Financial Times in July 2011. In one of the most richly ironic moments
of recent European history, it fell to a British chancellor to become
the first big hitter of any big EU member state to speak of the need to
transform the euro zone into a fiscal union. In effect, Mr Osborne was
demanding a far greater curtailing of national sovereignty in the euro
zone than its member states had hitherto envisaged. He did so at a time
when such federalist encomiums were viewed as offensively provocative by
the governments in Berlin, Paris or Madrid, all of which hoped – and
continue to hope – that taming the euro zone crisis will not exact quite
such a steep price in terms of national sovereignty.
partners were seriously annoyed and the mandarins of Whitehall were left
gasping for air at this reckless jettisoning of centuries of British
attempts to stop the continent from coalescing into a single political
entity. But this was no erratic lapse; Mr Osborne clearly expressed the
view at the top of British politics.
good year later, a moment of beautifully unguarded prime ministerial
language unfolded on the Late Show with David Letterman in the US. David Cameron, having famously failed to pass Letterman’s knowledge tests on
the meaning of Magna Carta and the authorship of Rule Britannia, went on
to explain later in the programme that “in Europe if you have a single
currency, you are going to end up with effectively some form of single
government . . . I don’t want that for Britain . . . I don’t want to be
part of a country called Europe.” He said this having previously made
clear that the relationship between euro zone member states must surely
come to resemble that between Texas and Nebraska for the euro to
Most of Europe’s media ignored the comment because it was
made on the Letterman show and most of the British media predictably
zeroed in on Mr Cameron’s amusing failure to remember his Old Etonian
Latin. They glossed over the far more important and astoundingly frank
assertion by their prime minister that the euro zone, unless it
disintegrated, must effectively become the United States of the Euro and
that the United Kingdom under his stewardship would not wish to be part
of “a country called Europe”.
Confront British officials with
this moment of prime ministerial candour and they will give you a pained
look. It is a rare moment indeed when it is the head of government
himself who publicly lays out a matter of fundamental political import
in such starkly simple – or, as some critics would say, simplistic –
terms as to leave no room for diplomatic subterfuge or political
But if Cameron is right and the euro zone must
basically become like a country called Europe if it is to survive (with
which this author happens to agree), then, barring some unforeseeable
economic cataclysm, a vast majority of Britons will choose to stay
outside it for decades to come.
Equally predictably, the European
Union would then be reduced to some kind of glorified European free trade area encumbered with too many obsolete institutions. Whether the
UK would remain in it or negotiate some other form of access to its
single market would be a secondary issue.
Surely ambitions to
build a European foreign and defence policy – the one other big
constitutional issue to settle – would gravitate away from the EU
towards the country called Europe. After all, wars cost money and a
fiscal and budgetary union would soon seize control of military
It is unclear yet whether market pressures coupled
with the objective to strengthen the euro’s foundations will suffice to
make the euro zone’s leaders surmount their innate conservatism and
submit their countries to the joint exercise of a massively expanded
euro-zone financial, fiscal and budgetary authority.
the vast majority of the euro zone’s present leaders hope that Mr
Cameron is wrong and that salvaging the euro will require merely a
series of gradual moves towards deeper integration, each of which can be
fragmented or fudged sufficiently to avoid the dangers of a referendum
at home – or of a make-or-break confrontation with the UK over the
nature of its relationship with Europe.
London’s red lines
equally obviously, if it is the UK that sets the bar too high, if it is
London that tries to extract painful concessions from its partners as
the price of allowing the euro zone to salvage itself through deeper
integration, then all euro-zone leaders are now determined to ignore the
red lines drawn up in London and find other ways to achieve their goal.
decades, Europeans implicitly accepted a special British right to
constantly wield its veto as the unpleasant but necessary price to pay
for British club membership. Today, the stakes are too high for such
The gamble of the euro’s founders was that
once the euro would be launched, no matter how steep the price of
further political integration, the price of monetary disintegration
would always be higher. History has embarked us on a gigantic experiment
to see whether that prediction will come to pass.
What becomes of
the UK in Europe or outside, it has now become a fascinating but minor
part of that far broader narrative. Continental federalists such as this
author, of course, will be tempted to wish the UK Godspeed and bon
voyage. After all, it might even become possible to build a US of E once
the flatmate with the armoured handbag has moved out.
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